Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Exquisite Corpse for Lockdown Noir: Part Two

Welcome to the next section of the Exquisite Corpse, continued from yesterday

And thanks to Tom Leins for the teaser poster:


Joyce studied the license. The face on the small plastic rectangle was remarkable in its mediocrity. Flat dead eyes, a slack slit of a mouth, an unruly mop of brown hair. The address on the license was in Salt Lake City, Utah. The name said Souterrain.

Joyce stood and took a sip of Gatorade.

Souterrain was French for Underground.

Joyce took another sip, put the license in her pocket, and got the hell out of the store. She had less time than she had figured. Whoever it was might already be at the house.

Back in the SUV, her phone vibrated. She froze. It was the vibration that signaled the alarm system had been tripped. She pulled the device out of her pocket and touched the screen.

The logo of the security app spun in lazy circles as the system came online. When it did, she saw every button for every sensor lit up like a Christmas tree. At least ten attackers moving toward the house hard and fast.

Joyce hit the buttons that armed the system, then pressed the ignition button and started the car. As she shifted into drive, the screen flashed, indicating that the landmines exploded. The red dots of the bogies blinked out of existence like dying stars as their motion stopped and their body temperatures dropped.

Her phone pinged: An alert for a Google Hangout session. Samson didn’t have her position, but he had the fake email that she routed through a server in India. Joyce weighed the risk of talking to Samson after he had put her in the crosshairs of the Underground, versus whatever intel he might be able to impart. He had told her she was slipping, but Samson hadn’t bothered to close his curtains when they last video-called. The trees in his backyard, the position of the sun, the fucking mailbox in the background that she hadn’t had a chance to magnify yet—all of it gave her more information than Samson realized.

She touched the screen.

Samson’s face popped on-screen. His left eyebrow was split down the middle by a wicked slice. Blood poured from it like a fountain. His nose was broken and swelling. He was sitting in a car or truck. She could hear the sound of a train in the background.

“How’s it going, Joyce?” Samson asked, his voice tremulous.

“You’re not looking so good, Sam.”

“Yeah, well, I’m surprised you’re still breathing.”

“What do you want Sam?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I miscalculated my association with The Underground. Seems like they want to tie up all their loose ends. What you say we rendezvous and try to get out of the Lower 48?” Samson asked. He coughed and a bubble of blood popped in his right nostril.

Joyce studied his face. The hard killer was still there, but now she saw something she had never noticed before: Fear.

“Hey, Samson. Fuck you. And whoever is holding that phone—fuck them, too.”

Joyce ended the connection.


She drove the SUV as far as she could, then left it. Time to head the rest of the way on foot.

Three klicks. Go, go, go.

Joyce ran hard, controlled. Like she’d been trained long before, in another lifetime, to do. Like she’d practiced for this very occasion. Down the mountain, yes, but also along that very fine line between reckless and careful. Between the chance of survival or revenge or maybe both, and a sure-as-shit bleed out in the dirt, a bullet lodged in her brain, the one a long time coming. A bullet earned, no doubt, by the way she’d lived her life, but damned if she was going to make it easier for anybody to cross out her name in a ledger. Twist an ankle, blow out a knee right now, and she’d be the clumsy lamb that tripped and moved itself closer to the slaughter; that laid its head in the lap of the executioner and said: “Left to right and make sure you cut deep.”

As she ran, she listened for boots on the dirt, the whir of drones overhead, the hunt, the chase. Amp her nervous system. Fight or flight. Her mind, though, knew the truth: nothing but the clink of the whiskey bottle against the guns in her bag, her body moving through the trees, her boots scrambling through scrub brush and over rocks and twisted roots, and her short, sharp exhalations. But not for long. There would be more. Boots. Exhalations. Guns. Oh yes, lots of guns. The chase would begin. They would hunt her, despite all the exploded bodies and scattered limbs back at her hideout. Because the Underground was legion, a basket of poisonous snakes. Pull one out, cut off its head, and there was always another that could flash its fangs and sink them into your flesh. Or twenty. Or fifty.

So, do not stop. Do not look back. Do not think.

Three klicks until the cave that wouldn’t show up on any satellite footage, in any drones’ surveillance feeds. An unmarked cave on unmarked land. One with perfect sightlines up the mountain, plenty of food and water and a high-powered sniper rifle with a shit-ton of ammo. Between that, the AR-15 slung over her shoulder and the handguns in the bag, enough for one last stand, surely a death sentence, but the opportunity to go out in a blaze of glory. At least a way to help as many Underground motherfuckers find the white light at the end of the tunnel before she did.

Also, just outside the cave, hidden under loose branches and a camo tarp, a dirt bike perfect for the terrain, to ride the winding, sinuous single-track trail along the ridge that they’d never find on a map. It wouldn’t get her very far, but maybe it’d be far enough to give her some breathing room, provide her options. Samson’s whereabouts could be tracked, his hideout discovered. Maybe the last thing the Underground ever expected was for her to show up there and save the asshole who’d marked her for death. Yeah, maybe. Or maybe Samson was already dead and deservedly so. She’d get drunk off his whiskey and reminisce about the good times they never had.

But that decision was later. Now it was time to keep running. Head up, scan. Don’t trip. Keep the legs moving. Do not stop. Do not look back. Do not think.

Joyce estimated two klicks to go now.

Her lungs burned.


It wasn’t just training that caused her to stop well before the entrance of the cave. The leg that had been stitched up in the grungy motel room in Kandahar had reported in for duty. The visible scars were small. But with tools less professional than what the average quilter used, stitching the muscles and tendons back together had left a knot that spasmed at inconvenient moments. Like now.

Breathing deep, Joyce emptied her mind and made herself relax. This enforced zen served two purposes. First, her fingers were able to soothe the cramp. Second, and far more important, it quieted her pounding heart and let her take in her surroundings.

Developing situational awareness had been hard for her. During the endless training, she’d taken everything from paintballs to the face to live rounds between her feet before she understood that all the information she needed was there if she was just willing to watch and listen.

There it was.

The murmuration of starlings headed to roost in the trees around the mouth of the cave split and veered off in two directions, their annoyed squawks interrupting the quiet on the mountain. She’d chosen that cave because of this built-in alarm system. Concentrating on the point of the disturbance, she couldn’t see the drone, but she could track the void in the flock.


The Underground wouldn’t be flying junk. They’d have the best government gear that could be obtained from both the front- and back-door sources. That bird would be packing a camera that could pick up the fact she was two weeks overdue in touching up her roots. Joyce gave silent thanks that she’d grabbed a dark shirt instead of the white one that’d been on the top of the laundry stack. As long as she stayed still, the drone pilot was unlikely to see her while she considered her options.

She was tracing an alternate path to the cave when she heard it. It wasn’t ominous on its face: Just a small animal scurrying through the thick ground cover. But she’d spent enough time in the woods to know that type of sound didn’t occur alone. There’d also be the sound of whatever had startled the creature.

Her stomach cratered at the soft noises. The scrape of a FastTech buckle on a tree. The faint rattle of gear not quite secured to a belt or tactical vest. They were close. There’d been a time in her life when those sounds were familiar and comforting. They meant her people were close by and had her back.

These weren’t her people. She wasn’t even sure if she had people anymore.

Their approach was to the right and below her on the steep hillside. Swiveling her head without moving her body, she evaluated her hiding place. She’d chosen it because the fallen log gave her a place to sit while she tended her leg. However, her natural caution had made sure she was hidden by a thicket of bushes.

One of her trainers had made her wear a bracelet covered in bells on her gun hand. Every tinkle earned her a hard slap on the back of her head until she mastered unholstering a pistol without making a sound. This weapon wasn’t suppressed, so using it was a nuclear option. She’d only get one chance.

There were two of them. Professionals. They alternated their approach, the one in the back on overwatch as his partner advanced to the next tree and sliced the pie before signaling them forward.

Joyce willed them past her. When engaging a superior force, the element of surprise and tactical advantage usually belonged to whoever was behind their prey. The early bird might get the worm, but the second mouse got the cheese.

Her breath caught when the operative with the loose buckle looked in her direction. Her finger eased toward the trigger guard when he raised his hand. She didn’t exhale until he gestured the second man toward the next tree.

Maybe not so professional after all.

Now that she knew they were there, the team sounded like a circus as they crept toward the cave. She waited until the noise faded and she was relatively sure they didn’t have backup.

It gave her enough time to throw together Plan B. It had to work, she didn’t have anything else in reserve.


Paul Antonio Perez was having problems moving through the woods.

Those were definitely explosions, he thought. Right? He’d never heard an explosion before, outside of the movies at least, but the reverberations through the ground and temporary deafness in his ears seemed like all the logical signs of an explosion. Or was it a television? Maybe Joyce was watching some movie full of violence and had installed a kickass sound system that made the ground shake.

Paul realized he was nodding at that thought, not because it was true, but because he wanted it to be true. It was safer than real-life explosions. Better than going to the cabin and seeing it blown to bits because of some accident with a furnace or heater. The idea of finding Joyce’s body brought nausea’s sour taste high to his throat. Still, he couldn’t move.

It wasn’t that Paul was a coward. He’d just never had to be brave.

But he needed to be brave right now, because it was hard to find buyers in the Sierra Nevadas. And he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about how Joyce had given him an extra ten thousand for this cabin, as easily as tossing scraps of paper into a garbage can. Paul Antonio Perez was the best realtor for miles, after all, and not only because he was the only realtor for miles. He was a hustler, constantly keeping an eye on his clients long after they’d bought, chatting with them about their properties, making sure they told friends and families about the beauty and seclusion. Joyce hadn’t given him the impression, after he sold her the cabin and she abruptly left his office, that she had friends or family… but the stack of cash had left a different impression.

He’d been thinking about those thousands of dollars in crisp bills ever since she’d casually dropped them on the table. Ever since another property had come up that she might be interested in.

“I’m not a businessman,” Paul said, in a low voice. “I’m a business, man.” He repeated it three more times, until the nerves settled in his stomach and strength returned to his arms and legs. He couldn’t remember where he’d heard the mantra, maybe one of his kids on a Skype call after his ex-wife had taken his family somewhere “with people and things and stuff.” But he liked the saying, imagined it referred to him, repeated it like a good luck charm during negotiations.

Paul emerged into the cabin’s clearing.


The next thing he knew, his knees were on the ground, making indents in the soft dirt. His palms were next. His mouth opened and he looked down—right into a torn, bloodied face. A dead man.

He scrambled backward, landing on his butt. Frozen.

Someone said: “First time seeing something like this?”

Paul wasn’t sure where the voice was coming from. He was too distracted, his thoughts struggling like a bird trying to fly in a tornado. He remembered reading or hearing some theory about seeing God, and how the sight was so unimaginable, so grand and overwhelming, that the human mind couldn’t comprehend it at first… and when you finally reached comprehension, that was when you reached the entrance of heaven. That was when you saw the truth. When the mind cleared.

But his mind couldn’t clear. There was too much to see.

“Don’t move. There might be more.”

Paul still didn’t know where the voice was coming from.

“More what?” he asked.

“Landmines.” The voice was so calm and self-assured that Paul felt himself succumbing to it. Like a child melting into his father’s arms.

He still couldn’t look at the ravaged land, at the torn bodies and small lakes of blood, but he could look at the voice and who it belonged to. A man standing in one of the craters, blood pooled around his boots. Dark jeans. A black windbreaker. Mustache.

Gun holstered on his hip.

“Landmines?” Paul repeated the word like he’d never heard it before.

“Landmines,” the man confirmed. “So I’d advise you not to come any closer. Stay where you are. You’ll be safe.”

Those last three words thrummed into Paul like a finger plucking a soothing harp string. You’ll be safe.

And it occurred to Paul who these men must be. The police. FBI. Some type of authority brought by those landmines, here because of the explosions. Brought because something bad had happened outside of the rules of men and nature and they were going to make it right.

“Is Joyce okay?” Paul asked.

“I think so,” the man said.

It seemed like there was more to say, but the man stayed quiet. As if he was waiting for Paul to speak.

“I sold her the cabin,” Paul said. “It didn’t have any landmines.”

The man smiled, and Paul realized the ridiculousness of what he’d said. Like the time his father had taken him hunting, and he’d watched his father shoot a deer in the head and the deer had dropped and Paul had asked, Is he dead?

“No, Paul,” the man said. “I didn’t think it did.”

“You know my name? How?”

“You told us you sold her the cabin. You’re Paul Antonio Perez.” The man frowned. “I thought you’d be Spanish.”

“I’m white,” Paul clarified. “Very white.” He added that in case these men were government agents, ICE raiding homes, searching for desperate immigrants hiding out in the mountains. He’d seen those types of agents before.

The man smiled again. “Very white?”

“My dad was from Spain, but my mom was from here. But my dad was legal. I’m legal. Very legal.”

The man ignored that. “You never talked to Joyce, I take it? After you sold her this cabin?”

“I never did,” Paul said. “And I pay all my taxes.”

“She’s not in the cabin, and she’s not here…” the man spread his arms, “on the land. Do you know where she might have gone?”

Paul thought hard, wanting to give this man the correct answer. “Maybe Benny’s?”

“She’s not at Benny’s,” the man said, his voice certain. “Is there somewhere else?”

“The Roses live down the way. Maybe she went to their place?”

“Maybe,” the man agreed, and that made Paul happy. “But I’m thinking of somewhere more remote.”

Paul scrunched his face, hoping the man would see how deep in thought he was. “I’ve got it!” he cried. “The caves.”

“Anywhere else, Paul?”

“I can’t think…I can’t think of anywhere else. I’m sorry.”

The mustached man’s voice was reassuring. He was bald, Paul noticed. Bald with a mustache. Weird marks on his head, like stains, as if his hair had been burnt off. “It’s okay, Paul. You don’t have to apologize. You’ve been helpful.”

“Is there anything I can do?” Paul asked. “Can I draw you a map to the caves?”

“We have maps.”

“We?” Paul asked, and that’s when he noticed the gray shapes slipping past him, like wolves or ghosts emerging from the darkening woods. But these were men, men stepping carefully from crater to crater.

“Who are they?” Paul asked. “Who are you? You didn’t tell me your name.”

He looked hard at the man, but couldn’t get a grasp on his face. If he had to describe this man to a police artist later, Paul realized, he wouldn’t know where to start. All he could see was the man’s mustache, the discoloration on his head. The gun in his hand.

The gun that had been holstered a moment before.

“Paul,” the man said. “Please, don’t move.”

And that was the flicker, the spark that finally flared that quivering match inside Paul.

Brought him to life.

“Paul,” the man warned.

The men, so many men. Maybe dozens. All trickling in from the woods, stepping slowly, searching the ground.

“Who are you?” Paul asked. “You’re not ICE.”

Someone laughed.

“I used to be,” someone else said.

The mustached man shot a dark look in that direction.

Paul’s legs tensed. These men weren’t with the government. They weren’t authorities. They weren’t here for good. There was something wrong here. Something bad, evil. And a feeling rose in Paul that he hadn’t expected, one he’d never felt before.

A sense of bravery, almost incredulous bravery, the kind that he wished he’d had when his wife and children had left and he stood on the porch watching them leave; when he’d sold that one cabin to that young, trusting couple, and couldn’t bring himself to tell them about the faulty pipes; when he’d watched ICE agents guiding a crying child to a van while other agents took the child’s scared parents to a car; when the Skype calls ended and his son looked at him, like he wanted Paul to say something else, and Paul just logged off.

Paul turned and ran and the men shouted behind him, and Paul remembered that deer’s head right before his father had pulled the trigger, the deer turning toward them and looking as if it knew what was going to happen, as if it had seen Paul’s young face, seen Paul not stopping his father, not telling his father that he didn’t want him to shoot the deer. That he wanted him to stop.

Paul remembered the jerk of the deer’s head as he ran, as his left foot touched the soft dirt, as the men shouted, as his other foot touched something hard and his body lifted and incredible pain tore through him. He seemed to have risen in the air, so high that he was far above the cabin and the clearing, far above the mustached man and the other men and their guns, so high in the air that Paul realized, with a moment of sadness and clarity before his thoughts finally ended, that he would never again touch the ground.


The story continues right here tomorrow.

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